Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Movies is Good -- Books is Good Too

 by JB

I am in love with David J. Skal.

Recently, my 36th or 37th trip down the Google rabbit hole late one night (Suggested new advertising campaign: “Can’t Sleep? Google.”) revealed yet another book I was unaware had just been published. The fine folks at the book division of Turner Classic Movies have released, just in time for Halloween, the latest book from David J. Skal, Fright Favorites. It’s a fun little book that made my heart glow and my goosebumps go all ultrasonic.

Fright Favorites is a profusely illustrated coffee table book of essays wherein Skal suggests “31 movies to haunt your Halloween.” Clearly, Skal is an authority on the subject, having written both the definitive history of Halloween (Death Makes a Holiday in 2002) and three of the most significant genre studies ever published (Hollywood Gothic in 1990, The Horror Show in 1993, and Screams of Reason in 1998*) It felt great to hold another Skal book in my hands. It felt great to hold anything in my hands; I’m still alive!
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: I still remember how excited I was in 1993 when Skal appeared at a local community college to give a talk based on his then-new book The Horror Show. I bought tickets early, I arrived early, and I learned early that night very few people in provincial Palatine were as interested in horror movies in general (and Skal in specific) as I was back then. The lecture was terrific, there was a lively question and answer session with the fifty of us that showed, and I got to talk to him afterwards and get my book signed. Later, I discovered that Palatine was not Hollywood when I attended the “Son of Famous Monsters of Filmland Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy World Convention” in Horrorwood, Karloffornia in 1995… and Skal’s talk there was standing room only… in a 2000-seat ballroom.

Fright Favorites is a nice introduction to the genre for young people who have just discovered horror movies as their new religion or a wonderful exercise in nostalgia for we seasoned fans. Beloved old chestnuts are not over represented (The classic Universal Monsters account for only six of the 31 films) and newer films like Get Out and Hereditary also get their due. I am so used to Skal’s style and approach in his other books that just sitting down and reading the forward here (“Halloween: A Hollywood State of Mind”) was like enjoying a coffee with an old friend. I love Skal’s choice of movies, I love the manner in which he writes about them, and I especially love the “If you enjoyed… you might also like...” section appended to each essay in which a more obscure film is suggested and described. It’s like getting 62 little movie essays for the price of 31. I found that I was so used to Skal writing about straight horror that his occasional forays writing about comedy here (Beetlejuice and Hocus Pocus are two of the films that made his cut.) were like little unexpected treats—the neighbor who gives out full-sized Snickers bars on Halloween, if you will.

Am I suggesting you purchase this book right now? Yes. Well, finish the column first.
CRAZY TANGENT: Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show just now to get in the mood for Scary Movie Month (and to put off writing this column for another two hours) sent me back down the Google rabbit hole chasing Google Alice, or more specifically, chasing the cast of this seminal flick. Were all the major cast members still alive? Check! What were they doing now? Various things! Any of them appear at conventions, you know, fan gatherings when gatherings of any kind were still okay? Yes, some of them. Barry Bostwick plays Brad Majors in the film; he was briefly married to Stacy Nelkin, the star of Halloween III. Nelkin was also cast as a sixth replicant in Blade Runner, but her part was cut from the film early in principal shooting for budgetary reasons. (My wife knew this, but of course, she has written a book on Blade Runner.) In high school, Nelkin dated a then-42-year-old Woody Allen; he based the February/December romance in Manhattan on his real-life relationship with Nelkin, though Allen insists they did not date each other until she was eighteen. The things one learns…
*This is not meant to give short shrift to Skal’s other books, every single one of which belong on any self-respecting horror fan’s shelf of honor: Dark Carnival, a biography of Tod Browning co-written with Elias Savada, was published in 1995; V for Vampire: The A-Z Guide to Everything Undead was released in 1996; he co-edited the Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1997; An Actor’s Voice, a biography of Claude Rains, came out in 2008; and Something in the Blood, a biography of Bram Stoker greeted eager horror fans in 2016. Do you enjoy the half-hour featurettes on the original Universal Monsters that have appeared on almost every release of those titles since they first appeared on DVD? Skal wrote and produced those too.
TAKE NOTE: Dark Delicacies still has autographed copies of Fright Favorites for sale on their website if you act fast!


  1. Books IS good! I haven't heard of this one, but I think I could read a whole series of columns of your reviews of movie books, John.

    Every time I go to a Half Price Books location, after perusing the movies and music I scoot on over to the alcove where the "Entertainment" books are located. I've picked up some real gems there, including most recently The Art of Noir by Eddie Muller. Other gems I've found there include Tough Without A Gun (a book about Humphrey Bogart), Five Came Back: A History of Hollywood and the Second world War, John Kobal's excellent interview anthology People Will Talk, Peter Bogdanovich's Who The Hell's In It, and Elsa Lanchester Herself.

  2. Yes! I think we go to the same HPB. Five Came Back and Who the Hell’s In It/Made It are essential reads.

  3. I just read on the TCM website that David Skal will be introducing movies on Friday nights in October. Horror movies, of course.

  4. Speaking of horror movies, are there any that you watch each October, J.B.? What is your general balance of new watches to familiar films?

    1. The classic Universal Monster films are my comfort food. Also, I can never let October go by without screening Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Psycho, The Birds, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, Evil Dead 2, and Scream. Because I am an old poop, I’d say my ratio of old to new is 90/10%

  5. Sir, there are no annoying autobiographical pauses. They are always genuinely welcome.